VHP Australia is one of the largest organisations in Sydney run by volunteers. Sushil Suresh says AkilaRamarathinam’s leadership has played a crucial role in the silent growth of a religious movement down under
From just five volunteers to more than 150 in a few years, the VHP’s growth in recent years, especially in Sydney, has been nothing less than phenomenal. Behind the VHP’s dedicated team of volunteers is an organisational philosophy that seeks to promote Hindu dharma and education among the fast growing Hindu population of Australia. The VHP’s educational program coordinates and ties together the various activities of the Hindu community in Australia, as well as other countries with large settled Hindu communities.
In the last few decades Hindu temples and religious centres have mushroomed in many parts of Australia. With the construction of temples attaining maturity and acceptance in Australia, parallel and complementary movements are gaining ground in the Indian community. Less than a decade ago there were just a few hundred students attending the weekly Hindu education programs. Today that number stands at 8,000. This growth is the outcome of increasing numbers of immigrants from India in recent times. However, the existence of a coordinated and well-organised education program would not have been possible without the efforts of VHP’s volunteers.
General SecretayAkilaRamarathinam has been instrumental in growing the VHP’s volunteer team from just a few people to 150 volunteers, making the VHP one of the largest organisations run by volunteers in Sydney. Behind this growth lies thousands of kilometres driving around Sydney to recruit volunteers, meet school principals, organise events, including Hindu conferences, attend interfaith and other religious conferences, craft a syllabus suited to the needs of children growing up in Australia, travel interstate and internationally for the VHP etcetcetc
When Akila first met leaders of the VHP and considered the possibility of an education program she was of the view that the scattered programs, run by individuals, were on the right path. VHP’s Joint General Secretary at the time, Vigyanandji, persuaded Akila that the time had come for an organisation to step up the efforts to promote Hindu dharma in Australia.
Temples and learning
Akila says that there were quite a few temples for Hindus, “but the second generation in Australia had to be educated about the meaning and significance of the temples, rituals, and the Hindu way of life. We felt that our children had to develop an appreciation of our history, culture, heritage and identity, and so we decided that an education program was the answer.
“We were anxious that our children should not see our rituals as empty. It is important that they are able to carry on when we are no more. We wanted youth from local communities assisting with the day-to-day needs of the temples. And we were keen that the priests and other functionaries at the temples would have local help in times when they needed it.”
The VHP’s educational program has ensured that the temples in Australia will not have to rely heavily on priests and other functionaries from India. Being involved with the temples also helps the students understand the Hindu religion better.
Akila herself had been undergoing a transformation that was leading her back to the wisdom she imbibed, as a child, from her traditional Hindu family in Chennai. Her father is a Vedic scholar, and knowledge of the scriptures was valued in her home. As Akila’s formal education took her to university and then a career that came with modern education, life seemed to drift away from her family’s Hindu scholarly tradition and its values.
Moving to Australia felt like a journey that widened the gulf between her current life and her days in Chennai as Akila was busy in her first years in Sydney with family and career. When her daughter was born with “multiple disabilities” Akila decided to leave her job and stay home. Accepting her daughter’s “disability” was hard, she says. For several years she looked far and wide for a cure, travelling to the United States, then getting expert therapists come to Sydney to help her daughter. Through those trying years, as she came to grips with her changed life, Akila says that Hindu spirituality and scriptures taught her the real meaning of acceptance, which she says is “the hardest thing for a mother with a disabled child”.
In those years when Akila was confined in her home, she says that meeting a renowned Bhagvad Gita scholar in Sydney, Sri Vasudevacharya, was a turning point. She used to attend his classes for eight years. “I didn’t miss a single class in eight years,” says Akila.
It was such a near spiritual transformation that led Akila towards the VHP and its educational program. Adversity in her personal life and the challenge of dealing with her feelings of cultural loss led her back to the wisdom of the Hindu scriptures she had imbibed in childhood.
Hindu education in Australia
The VHP’s program seeks to teach students Indian heritage and the contribution of India to civilisation. All the volunteers undergo training certified by the Department of Education’s special religious education requirements. In 2009 the program grew from three schools to 15 schools in Sydney, and it now reaches 60 schools across Sydney. Akila’s drive to increase the membership of the VHP has also resulted in the growth of Hindu Youth Australia, a wing of VHP Australia that organised Hindu youth Conferences in 2010, 2011 and 2012.
One of the main achievements of Akila as a VHP leader was the organisation of two Australian Hindu conferences attended by representatives of the Australian government, Indian organisations, temples and overseas delegates. These conferences paved the way for the other flagship services VHP Australia offers, like Sydney Veda Patasala, Hindu Social Services Foundation, BalaSamskar Kendra and Hindu Youth Australia. In these recent years of organisational growth, Akila has represented the VHP at conferences in other cities of Australia and the world, including India, the USA and New Zealand.
Akila has also been coordinating the Hindu Scripture classes under the special religious education provision of NSW public schools. She has been responsible for establishing the Hindu Scripture requirements in NSW Public Schools under Special Religious Education provision. She also played a big role in preparing the curriculum for this program.
Apart from the educational program the VHP’s Hindu social services foundation organises day camps for children with special needs and the elderly.
What we are seeing with the Hindu education program and its services is the emergence of a social phenomenon that will be directed largely by the VHP and like-minded organisations. It wasn’t long ago that students in NSW schools had to write “Other” in enrolment forms that asked students what their religion was.
Akila says the day is not far away when a full-time Hindu school will be functional in Sydney.
Published in The Indian Sun (Indian Newspaper in Sydney)